By Diana Ramos Gutiérrez
When arriving at the entrance of the former Roosevelt Roads naval station in the eastern Puerto Rican town of Ceiba, the signage aesthetic recalls a luxury hotel project. At a time, one of the largest naval facilities in the world, encompassing more than 100 miles of paved interior roads and buildings, Roosevelt Roads has remained unused and abandoned, as is the case with many other former military facilities in Puerto Rico. Throughout the years, different development plans have failed and many contracts have been approved that go nowhere. Despite being the closest point to Puerto Rico’s two island municipalities, the public ferry service that traveled to Vieques and Culebra had to be taken in Fajardo, leaving Roosevelt Roads to fall into disuse for many years.
Puerto Ricans had the initial task of building the facilities when Roosevelt Roads was commissioned as a U.S. Naval Operations Base in 1943. Agriculture was displaced as part of the industrialization plan for the islands, and the base became an important source of employment in Culebra, Vieques, Ceiba, and the Eastern part of the main island. For the next 60 years the base was utilized for flight practice, as well as other missions. The main purpose of the base was tactical support for land/sea/air maneuvers on Vieques island, where the U.S. Navy was engaged in active bombing exercises, especially after the Culebra island base closed in 1973. The Roosevelt Roads naval base remained an important source of income for many Puerto Ricans during this time, in part because of a total lack of development plans that coincided with the existence of the base as the center of the local economy. This story repeats itself among all the military bases that operate or operated in Puerto Rico.
A shorter route for whom?
The “short route” plan was suggested by the community of Vieques as part of a set of demands organized around demilitarization, decontamination, return of lands, and development following the exit of the U.S. Navy in 2000. Although the community of Vieques achieved a great victory in removing the military from the island two decades ago, inefficient and often corrupt government administrations never heeded the calls to implement the 15-minute short route plan between Vieques and Ceiba. Instead, Viequenses, or residents of Vieques, were expected to utilize the terminal in Fajardo, in a trip that takes an hour and a half. The inefficient public transportation system has effectively isolated and burdened the island municipality for many years.
A year after Hurricane Maria, and only a few months after the islands recovered power, the central government claimed signs of economic activity in Roosevelt Roads, exaggerating levels on economic activity when only the port in Ceiba was slated to open. Local newspaper El Nuevo Día celebrated it euphorically, stating that this new plan would revalidate the former navy station’s “real potential to boost the eastern zone as one of the strategic pillars to economically and socially revitalize” Puerto Rico and its islands. Federal recovery funds worth $500 million were financing private capital initiatives, improvements and contracts.
After public hearings where the community demanded participation in the decision-making process, a hasty relocation of the ferry terminal to Ceiba was made. It later became known that the relocation happened without the necessary EPA permits. Soon after, in April 2018, a proposal to develop a mega yacht marina at the former Roosevelt Roads naval base was announced. The Secretary of Economic Development and Trade, Manuel Laboy, took advantage of the summit of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) taking place at the Convention Center to present the new proposal to nearly 800 investors from twenty countries. The administration of governor Ricardo Rosselló presented between 60 and 80 projects with the potential to be transferred or developed by the private sector, with which they intended to reduce government responsibility and collect funds in the short term.
One of the announced projects, for instance, was Ocean Club, a new complex of holiday condos, which offered visitors quick maritime transportation to the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra as one of its main attractions. On social media, the Roosevelt Roads Local Re-Development Authority, a governmental entity, made it look like the base is “about to be reborn.” When reaching Ceiba’s maritime terminal, it is possible to see the remnants of the projects presented by the previous administration. The company to whom they gave a contract went bankrupt and left its garbage behind; immense scraps emerging from the sea are immediately visible upon arrival in the area. The rest of the former base area looks like a ghost town.
The master plan for Roosevelt Roads recommended by the Rosselló administration, included the development of a private ferry route to Vieques, Culebra and other islands. According to the plan, nearly $1Billion in investments would be required to improve the conditions of the infrastructure of highways, electric grid, aqueducts, and sewage systems in this paradisiacal area of Puerto Rico. After a massive influx of public funding, Roosevelt Roads would then be transferred to the private sector, letting Public Private Alliances be the main beneficiaries of the plan. Many of the investors present in that meeting were creditors of Puerto Rico’s massive public debt. The proposed Roosevelt Roads development fit in with other recent legislation, such as Acts 20 and 22, which seek to attract foreign capital with massive tax exception packages and financial incentives. The master plan for Roosevelt Roads proposed by the Rosselló administration made room for more vulture capitalists, while Puerto Ricans were forced to deal with billions of dollars in debt and a crumbling infrastructure.
A timeline of failed projects
The scenario above is not rare or atypical. Indeed, a brief timeline of recent proposed uses for the former Roosevelt Roads facilities reveals not only a number of failed projects but also that government officials have ignored the needs and concerns of local residents.
After military practices ended, Governor Sila Calderón, followed by Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vila, both of the Partido Popular Democrático, which is the pro-commonwealth party in Puerto Rico, agreed to promote an airport project in an effort to convert the area into a tourist enclave, much like Punta Cana or Cancún. With millions in investments, the commonwealth government developed structures that still stand empty. Many projects were started, but never completed such as a parking lot and port facilities in the military dock of Vieques and a million dollar sports complex in Vieques, just to name a few.
In September, the naval base was officially closed and APRODEC (Alianza Pro Desarrollo Económico de Ceiba), a grassroots organization, emerged, in part, to oppose elite and tourist-centered types of development in Roosevelt Roads. In 2004, a first “Reuse Plan” was commissioned to the Authority of Local Redevelopment of Roosevelt Roads, created by Act 508.
2007 “Portal of the future”
Access was permitted to the press for the fist time, and the “Portal of the future” project was announced, even though the terrain was not done being cleaned up by the Navy. For the 8,600 acres that comprise the former naval base, there were plans to develop 2,900 acres of land to be sold by the Navy in an online public auction. Another 270 acres were to remain in the hands of federal agencies such as Homeland Security, the National Guard, and the Coast Guard. The Puerto Rican government was going to transfer 1,900 acres for public use (the airport, the hospital, and part of the area of the docks), retain 3,400 acres of mostly wetlands, for conservation purposes, and sell 300 acres for economic development purposes.
A civilian coalition developed the Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of Vieques and Culebra and APRODEC developed several community proposals that were not taken into consideration.
2008 “Riviera del Caribe”
When Luis Fortuño became governor, he promoted an agenda of austerity and budget cuts, encouraging the establishment of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) with the passage of Public Law No. 29 of 2009. The Public Partnerships Act, favored and promoted PPPs, which would result in the creation of low paying part time jobs for Puerto Ricans and major profits for private, largely foreign investors. His focus on the plan for Roosevelt Roads was called the “Riviera del Caribe” project, which would see the construction of a casino complex with luxury villas. The proposed plan produced much debate and opposition after the project director, Jaime Rivera, indicated that the lack of access to wealth that Puerto Ricans experience, which effectively shuts them out of such projects, is a matter of luck because “such is life.” He suggested that those who dream of a life full of luxuries, like those for whom the “Caribbean Riviera” project was being planned, should play the lottery. He was dismissed from the project shortly after.
The United States Navy tried to sell, again, some 2,036 acres of land from the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba and announced another public auction to be held online. In 2012, 75% of the land of the base was finally returned and approximately 1,300 structures, 42 coastal miles, and 9 ports and docks were given back to the government of Puerto Rico.
Several years of abandonment and disuse passed until the next administration announced its plan for Roosevelt Roads. Under the government of Alejandro García Padilla, Clark Realty Capital, a private company, proposed to develop a complex of hotels, a shopping center, a port area for cruises, golf courses, and other luxury projects. The mayors of Ceiba, Vieques, and Culebra, in addition to the community, once again rejected the proposed projects. Community members marched and protested in order to demand that they be consulted and involved in the development plans for the area.
The Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) for Roosevelt Roads obtained the title to 3,400 acres for redevelopment from the U.S. Navy upon completing the Economic Development Conveyance (EDC) Agreement. After Clark Realty Capital’s redevelopment plans went nowhere, the government initiated direct negotiations with other developers, which led to a contract with Ariel Investment Management (Ariel) for Master Developer Services on February 16, 2016. In May of that same year the LRA Board of Directors decided not to continue exclusive negotiations with Ariel. The plans for redevelopment with either Clark or Ariel never materialized.
The government continued to try and identify developers as stated in the Roosevelt Roads Redevelopment project website of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce. The website had not been updated since 2016, when Facebook and Twitter social media accounts were created to give marketing support to the current administration’s plan.
2015 Federal Incentive Zone
The area was declared a Historically Sub-used Commercial Zone (HUBZone), a federal incentives zone designation, and efforts were made to attract investors under Act 20/22. Operations in Puerto Rico became highly profitable for foreign investors thanks to extraordinary tax incentives on capital gains, interests and dividends. Act 22, in particular, was created to promote relocation, encouraging wealthy individuals and investors to move to the islands, leaving little possibility of business competition opportunities for locals. According to data from the Department of Economic and Trade Development (DDEC), the total number of decrees granted under Act 22, reached 1,043 at the end of 2016, with 949 already approved and 94 in process. Of that figure, 400 were awarded in that same year. There is not a public list of who benefits from this law and of the economic exemptions they provide.
2017 The “East Revitalization Pillar,” or a “Disney in the Caribbean
An amusement park in the former Roosevelt Roads naval base was proposed by the government of Puerto Rico in February 2017. A “Disney in the Caribbean,” made possible through a Participatory Public-Private Partnership (APPP), was proposed by Ricardo Rosselló shortly after he became governor. The Disney entertainment company denied having plans to bring an amusement park to Puerto Rico.
In October 2017, just a month after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Roosevelt Roads was offered to Amazon as a “paradise” to “build the campus of your dreams in a setting unlike any,” in words of the current secretary of Commerce and Economic Development, Manuel Laboy Rivera. Months later, with the offer ignored, it was revealed that the government kept thousands of bottles of drinking water to rot in Roosevelt Roads. Destined for humanitarian aid, corresponding agencies refused to distribute the water, and tried to hide it in Roosevelt Roads where it still remains.
Shortly before resigning in disgrace, Governor Ricardo Rosselló reappeared in the area in early July 2019 along with the secretary of labor. His administration announced an agreement for the construction of a new electric power system in Roosevelt Roads and the development of several projects that would generate nearly a thousand jobs in the old naval base. Still, one year later, nothing has happened and it is unclear what happened to the designated funds.
2020 “Communities for Millennial Families” and gentrification
The Fiscal Control Board increased the budget of the Roosevelt Roads Redevelopment Authority to $ 13.3 million, which is a substantial increase from its current budget of $1 million dollars. Much of the additional money, approximately $12.6 million, has been earmarked for the construction of a new sanitary system in the area. In addition, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded a $4.5 million grant for other infrastructural improvements.
These development priorities come in the midst of austerity measures, in the middle of a pandemic, earthquakes, and after a category 5 hurricane, and are far from what the communities say they need. Vieques remains without a proper hospital, after the already damaged facility fell apart after Hurricane Maria. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved $ 39.5 million for the construction of a hospital in January 2020. The construction will be divided into 7 phases and it is expected to take 3-4 years to be completed. The first stone of the hospital has not yet been laid and there has not been any more news about it.
One of the projects that has already been completed and is in operation in the former Roosevelt Roads base is the LinkActiv call center, run by a private company, which was built last year at a cost of $8 million to Puerto Rico. This operation was supposed to generate about 600 full-time jobs with a minimum salary of $20,000 annually, but has not delivered on its promises. After two years, the transfer of the boat service operations for Vieques and Culebra to Roosevelt Roads, after an investment of $15 million, has not been finished. Residents of the islands of Vieques and Culebra are held prisoner to a limbo of unfinished projects and unsuitable, temporary facilities.
The proposed conversion of the Navy Lodge Hotel into an assisted living center for about 150 retired people, is also behind schedule. The assisted living center, which has already received an investment of $7 million, has not obtained the necessary permits, nor financing for the project to move forward. Likewise, the development proposal of United Real State, a private developer, which would convert the existing barracks into 150 apartments for short-term rental, is paralyzed. The project was supposed to open partially in March of last year and its construction was due to finish – in its entirety – by the summer of 2019. “Interior renovations were started inside one of the buildings, but the second phase is overdue in the design of the pool and other recreational areas,” according to Ian Camilo Serna, executive director of the Roosevelt Roads Development Authority. He made no allusion to when the facilities needed for the survival and quality of life of residents will improve, nor were any projects or programs related to the communities were announced.
Recently, (non-elected) governor Wanda Vazquez took advantage of laying the foundation stone for the construction of Hotel Loopland in July 2020. As part of her campaign for the primaries, she visited the area and announced the project, which, once completed, will have a total of 1,500 rooms. Loopland will be developed in 5 phases, with the first phase to be completed by mid-2022. Reportedly, the Loopland project will be completed over a 10-year period and will generate 1,500 direct jobs and 7,500 indirect jobs related to its operation. The Loopland brand has hotels in the state of Florida, Mexico, and some Caribbean islands, and plans to build “a center of marine adventures, entertainment, and relaxation in Puerto Rico,” according to founder and CEO David D. Brillembourg. Loopland’s motto is “Building Transformational Communities for Millennial Families,” but given the history of Roosevelt Roads one wonders whether this gentrification project will ever see the light of day. Nonetheless, residents are once again protesting yet another development project that fails to address their needs. Posters held by community members read, “Another such is life,” making reference to other failed development projects.
It has been almost 20 years since the US Navy left Vieques and Ceiba. In that time, population substitution and displacement, lack of employment, and policies that negatively impact natural resources and community well-being have been rampant. As new projects continue to be announced, community voices are ignored and more power – and million dollar contracts – are given to those who are willing to gamble with the lives and futures of Puerto Ricans and their islands.
Diana Ramos Gutiérrez graduated from the Department of Hispanic Studies and History of Latin America at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. She is a master’s candidate in the Communications and Human Rights program at the Faculty of Journalism and Social Communication, at National University of La Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is part of the editorial board of Radio Vieques, a community radio station that serves Vieques, Culebra and the Eastern part of Puerto Rico, and collaborates with the Vieques Historical Archives (Archivo Histórico de Vieques – AHV).